A look at the 2023 hurricane season

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Researchers predict a slightly below-average season

Hurricane researchers at Colorado State University have issued their first 2023 Atlantic hurricane season forecast, and they’re calling for a season with activity slightly below normal.

The 2023 Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. The research team at the CSU Tropical Meteorology Project predicts there will be 13 named storms this year, and that six of these named storms will become hurricanes. Of those six storms, the CSU team believes two will reach major hurricane status. A major hurricane has sustained winds of at least 111 miles per hour and is classified as either a Category 3, 4 or 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale.

The most prominent factor affecting this year’s forecast is the expected presence of an El Niño climate pattern. El Niño is characterized by warmer-than-normal water in the Pacific, and it can generate upper-level westerly winds across the Caribbean and into the tropical Atlantic. These upper-level winds are called shear, and they can help tear hurricanes apart. On the day the CSU report was released in April, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center issued an El Niño watch which noted that conditions are favorable for the development of an El Niño weather pattern.

“They (NOAA) have an 82% chance of El Niño for August through October, which are the peak three months of the hurricane season, and that’s an extremely aggressive forecast. That’s a really high probability, this far out,” says Dr. Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist with the department of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “When you have that El Nino, it tends to increase those upper-level winds. They tear apart hurricanes in the Atlantic as they’re trying to develop and intensify. So basically, it tends to reduce the odds of storms forming and reduce the odds of them especially becoming really strong. That’s not to say we haven’t had significant hurricanes in El Niño years, but it tends to reduce the odds. A lot of that is also how strong that El Niño gets. The stronger (the El Niño), the more shear and detrimental impacts it has on hurricanes.”

While a significant El Niño may well have an adverse effect on hurricane formation, Klotzbach cautions that the warmer-than-average temperatures in the Caribbean and subtropical Atlantic could still create a busy hurricane season.

“We’re only going slightly below normal (with the outlook), and the big reason why that’s the case is because the Atlantic right now, the eastern and central tropical and subtropical Atlantic, is much warmer than normal. If we didn’t have a potential really robust El Niño, the Atlantic right now would be quite conducive for an active season,” he says. “It seems kind of a tug-of-war between these two factors whereby the Atlantic is very warm but also the El Nino looks to be coming on pretty quickly. It’s hopefully a race to get El Niño quickly enough so that the warm Atlantic won’t necessarily really matter as much, because when you have a strong enough El Niño, that tends to really dominate.”

The hurricane research team at CSU anticipates a 44% probability of at least one major hurricane making landfall somewhere along the coastline of the United States in 2023. The average for the years between 1880 and 2020 was 43%. The team puts the chances of a major hurricane landing along the East Coast of the United States, including the Florida peninsula, at 22%; the 140-year average was 21%. The team estimates that the chances of a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast—from the Florida panhandle westward to Brownsville, Texas—at 28%. The average from 1880 to 2020 is 27%.

This is the 40th year that the CSU hurricane research team has issued its seasonal hurricane forecast for the Atlantic basin. So far, the 2023 season is exhibiting characteristics similar to hurricane seasons in the years 1969, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2015, which were all seasons that presented near-normal to just-below-normal Atlantic hurricane activity. The CSU team will issue updates to its forecast on June 1, July 6 and August 3.

AccuWeather released its forecast earlier in the spring, and is also projecting a season with slightly less activity. The AccuWeather team forecasts between 11 and 15 named storms for the 2023 Atlantic hurricane season, including four to eight hurricanes and one to three major hurricanes listed as Category 3 or higher. The report predicts two to four will have direct impacts on the United States.

Despite the predictions of a less-active season, Dan Kottlowski, expert senior meteorologist and lead hurricane forecaster at AccuWeather, cautions that Florida might still be at risk. “Based on climatology and the evolving El Niño pattern during August through October, the highest chance for direct and significant impacts will be from the Florida Panhandle around the entire state of Florida to the Carolina coast,” Kottlowski said in a release. “There appears to be a lower chance for direct impacts over the western Gulf of Mexico and for the Northeast U.S.”

In addition, Kottlowski also warned that regardless of this season’s forecast, Southwest Florida residents should still be prepared for any hurricane contingency. “Even if this season were to turn out to be less active than normal, abundant warm water could lead to the development of a couple of very strong hurricanes, as we saw with Ian,” he said. “Anyone living near or at the coast must have a hurricane plan in place to deal with what could be a life-threatening or very damaging hurricane. Now is the time to create or update your plan.”

However the 2023 hurricane season plays out, both Klotzbach and Kottlowski agree that early preparation is key. Know where you live in relation to evacuation zones; understand your potential vulnerability to high winds, heavy rain and storm surge; and have a plan in place to ensure the safety of you and your family should a hurricane or tropical storm threaten. Don’t let a forecast of a mild season lead to a lack of planning—and remember that every storm, regardless of strength, can be dangerous.

“Whether you’ve been hit hard (by a hurricane) or not hit in a long time, doesn’t necessarily mean you are due or you’re not. Last year we had eight hurricanes. This year, we’re forecasting six, but we can’t say where they’re going to go,” Klotzbach says. “In general, odds are lower that you’re going to get hit in a quieter season, but certainly they’re never zero. It just takes that one hurricane to make it a busy season for you.”

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